Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergent structures are also a common strategy found in many animal groups: colonies of ants, swarms of bees, schools of fish and the flocking of birds. Ant colonies, for example, exhibit complex behavior and have even been able to demonstrate the ability to solve geometric problems. How can they do that? They don’t have a top down manager telling them what to do. Their queen does not give direct orders, instead each ant reacts to stimuli in the form of chemical scents and leaves behind a chemical trail, which in turn, provides a stimulus to other ants. Here each ant is an autonomous unit that reacts depending only on its local environment and the genetically encoded rules for its variety of ant.
Can we humans also show emergent behavior like these ants? Of course we can! It happens all the time. When walking on a crowded street we don’t bump into each other. We easily adjust our walking path in anticipation of the people around us. We don’t think about it. Or think about ‘elephant tracks’ in your local park. People constantly take the shortest path to their destination and take visible shortcuts over the grass. And this collective intelligence can take other forms too. We actually make use of this all the time! It’s called Google. Google tracks every website to learn about their page rank. And this page rank is essentially powered by you. Every time you click on a link or open a website google learns something. It learns which sites are popular and through is complicated algorithm is can return these findings in a search engine. Through our collective independent behavior google is getting smarter and smarter.
But other companies are also making use of our online behavior. Recommendations engines, used in most web shops, give intelligent suggestions on stuff you might like. They learn from past browsing history of likeminded people. If I’m buying a book, and another customer also bought that same book including second book, I might also like this second book. If enough people perform the same action, buying the same both books, it becomes a suggestion. Just like ants we can become smarter when we use independent information from a large group of people. Luckily we don’t need a manager to tell us how, just some smart nerds figuring out how the algorithm should work.
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